Two Sides of Sauk County

Sauk County is my playground. At just about a thirty minutes’ drive away, it is a frequent day off destination for me. It’s not hard for me to pick my favorite southern Wisconsin county; this one has a lot of my favorite hiking spots. The Spring Green Preserve, Ferry Bluff, Devil’s Lake (our biggest state park), and Parfrey’s Glen are all there. With so many great spots in a small area it is easy to do two smaller hikes in an afternoon.

My first stop on Saturday was Natural Bridge State Park. It’s a small park several miles from highway 12. Given its distance from the highway it is less crowded than Devil’s Lake and Parfrey’s Glen, but I was surprised to see several cars there. This was even a gloomy day!

The scenic overlook at the park offers views of the nearby farms and hills.

The path to get to the eponymous natural bridge is very short. As does a lot of the region, the park has sandstone formations hidden among the trees. The most impressive of the day was the bridge. It had been at least a decade since I’d seen it and it was larger than I remembered. Don’t we usually have the opposite reaction when we go someplace we hadn’t been to since we were children? Perhaps somewhere along the line I fell under the impression that any arch in Wisconsin would have to be boring. I’m glad I went because my expectations were wrong.

The natural bridge

Beyond the bridge, the trails still had a decent crowd. Nothing like at Devil’s Lake on a good day, but still a popular place. It was very typical of a state park; the trails were wide and well-maintained. It was the Sauk County more traveled.

Just a few miles down the road, Hemlock Draw State Natural Area is just as beautiful of a place but seems to be almost unvisited. Even when I’ve gone with groups, we’ve never run into anyone else. This was my first time going there alone, and I did not encounter another human being. This is one of the state natural areas which has a beauty that does not correlate with its foot traffic. You’d really think more people would go there. My visit last week had that surreal combination of adventure and eeriness that go along with being in the woods alone.

The trail could not have been any different from the one at Natural Bridge. The trail might be maintained only by use. A few fallen trees blocked it at points, and of the four stream crossings (none of them with bridges), three were more challenging than usual with the high water. I felt like a kid again. Growing up, the paths in the woods were more rugged like this, and most of the times my friends and I didn’t even use them. Why would we? There was fun to be had.

This was one of the easier stream crossings. Not all of them had well-positioned rocks, at least not this year with our high water levels. I had to accept the fact that I’d get a little wet at some of them. A little water didn’t hurt me and only the bottom half of my boots were damp by the time I got back to my car.

Thinking back on how fun the journey was, I almost forgot to write about the “destination” of the hemlock forest. About a mile into the woods, there is a small stand of hemlocks by the creek, in an area adjacent to a few small cliffs. This is a sheltered, cooler environment, and these northern trees like it there. The hemlock forest is a special place, a place to linger. The trees invite you to sit by the water while it soothes you with a sound that washes away your worries. The cliffs and the stream make the air refreshingly chilled and the trees block out much of the light. I stayed until the time I knew I had to leave to make it back to the car before sunset. By the time I was back to Dane County, the sky was already dark.

In the hemlock woods

These are the two sides of Sauk County. Would you rather take the beaten path or the road less traveled? Fortunately you don’t have to choose one over the other. Both my hikes were worth it, and since they were on the shorter side I had plenty of time and energy to do both.

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